Doing a quick double-take at the other girl’s words, I reflexively blurted, “First day as a what?”
Yup, still couldn’t see her face through that helmet. But it was pretty easy to tell she was blushing. It was just the way her body language read, the way she squirmed and hesitated before seeming to set herself as she repeated, “Sidekick. I mean, it seemed a little presumptuous or whatever to say partner, you know? You’ve been doing the whole hero thing for a little while, and I’m not–I mean I never, except yesterday with the whole–and I was just there for–um.” Realizing she was rambling, the girl shrugged uncertainly. “I know it’s probably weird to like, have a sidekick that’s older than you and all, but I’m okay with that from my end. I mean, you saved–like, you’ve saved a lot of people. So, you know, I’m like… I’m okay with being your… student?”
Oh boy, what was I supposed to say to that? I mean, just outright denying her would be mean and might backfire in several ways. But I couldn’t actually have her as a sidekick, right? Not really. It was way too dangerous for both of us. If she was on the level, I’d be putting her in so much danger and stress. And if she wasn’t, if she wasn’t trustworthy, I’d be exposing myself. What could I say? How could I gently deny her, or give her a different idea of what to do with herself, without screwing things up? What kind of suggestion could I make?
Finally, I said the only thing that came to mind. “You could join the Minority, you know?”
To my surprise, the girl snorted at that. “Well, that’s obviously a completely terrible idea.”
“What?” I blinked, confused. “Why? What’s so terrible about joining the Minority?”
Her even more confusing answer to that was a shrug. “I dunno. They seem pretty cool to me. Actually they seem awesome. They’ve got cool powers and they help people all the time. Plus, you know, they’re like… training for the big teams. And I hear you get a scholarship and shit for being part of them. Not just a salary, but like… super-good education benefits. And once you’re part of one of the adult teams, they help you get a good cover job or whatever. Seems cool to me.”
My mouth opened, then shut before I managed a weak, “So why don’t you want to join them? You know, if they’re so cool and everything. I don’t get it. You just said you like them, and they have all these benefits. So what’s wrong?”
“Uh, first, my mom would never let me,” she pointed out with what sounded like a grimace. “They make you report everything to your parents, and my mother would lock me in a tower, Rapunzel-style, before she’d let me go do stuff like that. And I don’t think I can grow my hair that long. I mean, maybe someone could talk her into letting me do the simple stuff or like… something. But it’d be a big problem.”
Hesitating, I slowly asked, “You said that’s one reason. And one you might be able to work around. What’s the other reason you don’t want to join them?”
“You.” That was her flat response as she stared at me. Her eyes, visible through that helmet, seemed to look right into me. “You know they’re good guys. I mean, you work with them a lot. You keep showing up to help them, or calling for their help. The point is, you work with them. And you obviously know every good reason to join them that I already said. But you don’t work with them. You know they’re good, but you don’t join them. You’re good and they’re good, but you keep refusing to sign up. Even though you like, fight together sometimes, or join them on something here or there, you don’t join. You’ve needed their help before, you know they have all these benefits, they obviously want you to join. But… but you don’t.”
When I didn’t say anything to that, my mind too busy reeling, she continued. “Yeah, I dunno what the problem is. They seem cool. They seem great. But you know all that and you still don’t join them. So obviously there’s something wrong with them. It’s not cuz you’re a loner or you hate working with people, cuz you still work with them. Just not officially. I think that probably means the problem isn’t one of them, but the adults you keep avoiding.”
With a shrug, the girl added, “Or maybe you just don’t want to join them for my first reason. Maybe you’re avoiding letting your parents know you’re Touched and all. I mean, you are like… sorry, no offense, a kid. So first I thought that was it. But I dunno. I sort of… looked up everything I could about stuff you’ve been doing last night. I spent hours with it. Seriously, that was like, the most homework I’ve ever done. And the more I tried to understand, the more it seemed like just having protective parents wasn’t the real answer. Trust me, I deal with a super-protective mom all the time, and your thing just doesn’t feel like that. Not exactly.”
Finally, she folded her arms, finishing with a quiet, “I dunno why you don’t want to join them. But you already saved me twice, so if you think there’s something wrong with them, I’m gonna take your word for it. Or, you know, not your word. Your… uhh, decision? Whatever.”
For a moment, I tried to think of how to respond to that. What was I supposed to say? I could claim the first instinct was right, that I was really just trying to avoid letting my parents know about me. Which, technically, was one hundred percent true. But I was pretty sure she’d want more than that. I considered that briefly before blinking. “Wait, hang on.” Running what she’d just said back through my head, I looked back to her. “What do you mean, I saved you twice?”
There was no response at first. Instead, the girl just stared at me. I had the feeling she was reeling inwardly for those several long, silent seconds before eventually managing a single, “Oh. I… uh.” Deflating a bit, she reached up to tap the side of her white helmet with one finger. Immediately, it popped off her head, transforming back into a small white marble. Now I could see her face. A face which, while not one I had seen much of, was still instantly familiar.
“Wha–you!” I blurted out loud, pointing that way completely ridiculously. “It’s you! You–” The right name came to me abruptly, though I’d only heard it once. “Peyton?!”
Squirming there on her feet, the red-haired girl offered a weak, “Hi, Paintball. Funny to see you again, huh? At least I didn’t get kidnapped by a pedo this time?”
While I was still trying to cope with the odds of all this, she quickly pressed on to tell me everything about what actually happened the day before. She told me about how she was shopping when those guys arrived, how she panicked and ran away when they told her to stay put, then got cornered in the bookstore until the orb showed up and gave her powers.
Orb. Her saying that reminded me of the thought I’d had the day before. I’d been half-sure that I’d caught a glimpse of one of the orbs from the corner of my eye. That was the whole reason I’d turned around and looked just in time to see the Easy Eight people driving past. If I hadn’t thought I saw the orb right then, I would’ve missed them. And if I’d missed them, I wouldn’t have been at the shopping center place in time to help this gi–Peyton. And if I hadn’t been there, she might’ve–what? Would she have died? Would Juice go that far? I wasn’t–maybe. Either way, she would’ve been hurt. Or abducted. Maybe they would’ve turned her, or just injured her, or–it would’ve been bad. That was the point, it definitely would’ve been bad.
Did… did that mean the orb that gave Peyton her powers had then come to find me for help? Was–were they capable of that kind of–no. Of course not. They were just orbs. But maybe whoever was behind them had sent one to get my attention, somehow? No one knew who created the orbs, if it was some alien race or super-advanced secret society of humans or… or what. So maybe whoever sent the orb to her or… or whatever realized she was still in trouble and sent one to get my attention? But… but… that was just–that… huh.
Well, that just opened up a whole new slew of questions that I didn’t have any chance of getting answers to any time soon. A whole lot of people much smarter than I was had been trying to figure out the truth about the orbs for a long time. I wasn’t about to solve that mystery.
Shaking all that off, I focused on the current situation. Peyton was here, the girl I’d saved from one kidnapping and then helped deal with a hostage situation. And she had figured out that I had a good reason not to join up with the Minority, even if she had no idea what that reason was. Suddenly, an already-complicated situation had become even moreso. Which was just perfect.
“Should I uhh, go grab a sandwich while you figure out what to say?” the girl hesitantly asked, offering me a somewhat lopsided smile. “I guess I could get one for you too, if you want.”
For like the millionth time, I was grateful that my helmet and mask combination made it impossible to see when I blushed. That was an excellent costume choice on my part, really. But I quickly shook that off, focusing. I had to say something, had to explain–what? How much could I actually tell her? What… what was I going to say to the girl now that she had figured all that out?
Finally, the solution I settled on was to take a deep breath before starting with, “Yes. I have a reason–reasons not to join the Minority or any of the Star-Touched teams. Good reasons. But… I’m not sure–I don’t think I should talk about them just yet. For my safety and yours. It’s…” Oh boy, how much further could I go with this? “It’s dangerous for anyone who knows about it.”
Peyton was silent for a moment. She seemed to be considering that, weighing what I’d said in her mind to figure out if I was blowing her off. Eventually, she gave a short nod. “Sure, I get it. I mean, you barely know me. You don’t know me. If it’s important enough to make you not join any of the Star-Touched teams in the city, then–” A grimace crossed her face. “It must be pretty bad. And if it’s that bad, it’d be dumb to go babbling about it to every random girl you save twice.” There was another pause before she added, “You’re pretty mature for a kid, you know?”
Oh boy did I really not know what to say to that. Or rather, a lot of potential things to say jumped into my head immediately, but none of them would’ve been a good idea. Instead, I coughed before gesturing. “I had to grow up fast. But you–you’re okay with not being told? Yet. You’re okay with not being told yet.” Somehow, I’d figure out if the girl could be trusted with the secret, and if it was a good idea to actually bring her in on it. I just needed time to sort through all of it.
Her head bobbed a little. “Sure. Like I said, you barely know me. But seriously, if you’re not joining those guys, I’m not joining them. And I’m pretty sure I’d get in way too much trouble all by myself out there, especially since I just pissed off that Juice guy when he was like, ‘raaaawr’ and I was like, ‘yeet!’ Sooo…” Trailing off, she gestured to herself, then to me, then to herself, waggling her eyebrows in a way that made me giggle despite myself before I managed to clamp down on it.
“Okay, okay,” I made myself quickly put in. “Look, I’m really not sure about the whole… yeah. I’m not sure. But at least I can maybe help you get some idea about how your powers work and all that? You know, if you want. Though you seemed pretty good with them yesterday for just starting. Especially with the whole, uh, yeeting bit.” Yeah, that was a memory that made me smile. “I really wish someone got that on camera.”
“What–they did,” Peyton quickly blurted. As I blinked in surprise, she stepped closer and turned, bringing up her phone to show me someone else’s video, apparently from the point of view of one of the hostages who had fled and was hiding around a corner. In the distance, you could see the three of us on the roof as the bolt of lightning hit me, then the way Peyton’s marbles formed the battering ram to slam into Juice. The person recording blurted some kind of half-curse and half-laugh just as the battering ram before shifted into the boxing gloves to hit Juice again, then scooped him up and flung him off into the distance. The half-laugh turned to a full-on guffaw.
“Uhh, have a lot of people seen this?” I asked hesitantly as the video looped back to the beginning for additional sound effects when the Easy Eights lieutenant was sent flying.
“Depends,” Peyton noted, checking the views. “Do you consider three hundred thousand views to be a lot? Wait, you don’t think it makes you look bad or something, do you? Cuz it’s really–”
“No!” I hurriedly blurted, head shaking rapidly. “No, I think it makes Juice look bad, and he’s gonna be really pissed off at you. At both of us, really. But especially you. I just–uh, be careful, okay? Be really careful. I get the impression he doesn’t take being embarrassed very well.”
“Yeah, I got that impression,” the other girl muttered under her breath, making a face before shuddering. “Believe me, I’m not about to go knock on his door selling cookies and candy bars.” Shrugging then, she added, “But you said you could help me figure out these guys?” With those words, the girl gestured to the four differently-colored marbles (silver, white, purple, and bronze) hovering in the air to the right, as well as her two-colored armor (black and gold). “Cuz right now they sorta just do what I think about them doing. Sometimes before I even actually think about it. Are your powers like that? Do they uhh, like, do stuff on their own?”
“Nope,” I replied, stepping closer and taking both of my gloves off before gently reaching out so I could touch the purple marble curiously. It shied away from my hand, then stopped when Peyton looked at it and hovered there as I very gently brushed one finger against it. The thing felt warm, and mostly smooth but with a bit of roughness to it. Sort of like very fine sandpaper, or something like that. It seemed to almost pulse under my touch, making me jump slightly. Which made it jump. Yeah, I swore the thing bounced backward an inch or so in the air. As it did so, the other three quickly flew in as though to defend it. They didn’t snarl or anything, but I was pretty sure they would’ve if it had been possible.
“It’s okay! It’s okay!” Peyton blurted hurriedly, stepping up behind the marbles. “Sorry, they’re just a little nervous and protective.” She hesitated before adding, “I’m not sure how I know that. I mean, I’m not just making it up. I can sort of feel what they feel? That’s pretty weird, huh?”
Shrugging, I pointed out, “Lots of powers are weird, believe me. Here, let me try it this way.” Reaching out with my palm up, I held it close to the marbles but not quite touching them. Gradually, the purple marble lowered itself, gently touching the end of one finger before it moved to settle in my palm. It was still quivering a little bit, but stayed there while I moved my other hand up and very gently brushed one bare finger along it. After that initial moment, the marble seemed to enjoy the sensation and the others joined it. I gently brushed all of them, before looking toward the other girl. “I think your friends and I are starting to get along.”
“Yeah,” she confirmed, “these two are jealous. Hang on.” With that, the girl seemed to focus briefly, before the gold and black armor melted off of her and transformed back into two more marbles. As soon as they did, the purple and silver marbles lifted off of my hand and flew that way. They formed into new armor for Peyton that looked slightly different. Instead of being a medieval-type chestplate and bracers and such, the new armor looked like it was from one of those Super Sentai shows, or the old Power Rangers stuff. The base suit was purple, with the silver marble making up the outlines and highlight designs up through it. Also, the silver part stretched itself up to cover her neck and throat in a sort of protective sheath before spreading across the bottom half of her face. From there, the purple armor raised itself in the back to cover the back of her head, then up over the top, stopping just above her eyes. The result left her hair entirely concealed while only her eyes and nose were exposed.
“Whoa,” I managed just as the gold and black marbles came over to be petted. “Did you do that yourself?” My fingers gently brushed over them while all the remaining marbles crowded up for attention.
“Uh huh.” With that confirmation, Peyton looked down at herself. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?”
“Definitely cool,” I agreed. From there, I started to say something else, but the sound of a car engine drew both of our attention over to the nearby alley. Frowning, I checked to make sure her face was still covered before pulling my gloves back on. “Careful,” I murmured. “Might be nothing, but–”
By that point, a black SUV with heavily tinted windows had pulled up just in view, through the alley. There was a brief moment of silence and I was about to tell the other girl we were leaving, when the driver-side door opened and a familiar figure stepped out.
“Cavalcade?” I blurted, while Peyton made a noise of surprise behind me. Yeah, it was the Mercenary Sell-Touched woman who made rapid-fire duplicates to simulate super speed. Among other uses.
“Hey, kid,” the woman greeted. “Ah, kids, I guess. Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. But we need to take a little ride.”
“What?” My head shook. “It’s not time to talk to Glitch yet.” Behind me, I heard Peyton half-whisper that name, clearly baffled by this whole situation.
“No, you’re right,” Cavalcade confirmed. “This isn’t about Braintrust. It’s about Deicide.
“She’s calling in that favor.”